By Joel Alderman
The passing last week of Dean Smith recalled, for this writer, the time in 1974 when that legendary college basketball coach brought his star studded North Carolina Tar Heels to New Haven, and left with some complimentary thoughts about the Yale team they faced on the Saturday afternoon of December 22, 1974.
It was no average North Carolina squad, even by Smith’s own high standards, that took the floor at Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium. The lineup included four players who were future pros and U.S. Olympians.
Conversely, the Yale player who would be the best known was not for his basketball ability but for a political career. Gary Franks, from Waterbury, would be a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for six years, and is still the only African-American elected to the U.S. Congress from Connecticut. He was a pretty good basketball player in college, but only scored two points in this particular game.
Why would North Carolina have wanted to play in New Haven?
Teams from power conferences ordinarily don’t play in places such as Yale. But this game was actually more in the interest of the visitors than the home side. It took place at a time when both colleges were on their winter breaks and when there were only three days left for Christmas shopping.
Yale’s students were away, leaving only some staunch local basketball fans and a small contingent of UNC alumni from New York, New Jersey and New England to make up the sparse attendance of about 1,200.
The purpose of the contest, however, was not to attract a big crowd. The Tar Heels had their own agenda. A day later they were to fly out of New York to face some European competition. Dean Smith wanted to give them a tune up game just before they left. He and Yale’s coach, Joe Vancissin, were close friends, and the game here was arranged.
Vancissin, like Smith, was a crafty and highly respected coach, who usually worked with players of only average ability. He had Yale begin the game with a spread offense in an effort to slow down the faster and taller Tar Heels. For a while it worked, as the Bulldogs got some easy baskets, and North Carolina led by just 11-8 at the ten minute mark. The halftime score went to 30-17, and the Tar Heels, who out rebounded Yale 46-37, then coasted to a 70-53 victory.
Smith’s classy comment
Afterwards, Dean Smith, always the gentleman, gave Yale and Vancissin credit. “Yale presented a fine game plan,” he said. “We had to chase the ball on defense and gamble in order to maintain any sort of tempo.”
UNC’s star personnel
It figured to be a mismatch, although it was closer than the score would indicate. With the array of players Smith had, it was a wonder Yale was even in it. Check out this lineup.
A freshman, Ford was already touted for greatness. He finished his four years at Carolina with what was then a school record 2,290 points. He was to be the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1978. Ford had an aggressive style of play, but his shooting was off (4-12) with just eight points against the Bulldogs.
He scored 20 points (7 baskets and 6-13 from the foul line) in the Yale game. He also took down 10 rebounds. Walter Davis went on to play in the NBA for 15 years. His nickname was “Sweet D” (for defense), and his No. 6 has been retired by the Phoenix Suns.
He was the ACC Player of the Year as a senior, and an All-American. Mitch Kupchak was on the 1978 NBA champion Washington Bullets. He had only one basket and a free throw against Yale. Today, he is the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Standing 6-10, Tom LaGarde played in the NBA for nine seasons, during which he was on the 1979 champion Seattle Supersonics. He scored seven points against Yale, five on foul shots.
Ed Stahl had four field goals and was 6-6 from the foul line, with 14 points. He also had 11 rebounds. After graduating from North Carolina, he played pro ball in Italy for two years, before embarking on a business career.
Phil Ford, Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak and Tom LaGarde all played for the U.S. Olympic team that won the Gold Medal in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. The coach of that team? Dean Smith.
That was the first time four future U.S. Olympians and a Gold Medal coach would be in a game together at the Yale Gym. It is very unlikely it will ever happen again! (Remember, this was back in the days when collegians played on the U.S. Olympic team instead of pros).
After the UNC-Yale game
That season UNC won a first round game in the NCAA Tournament, but lost to Syracuse by two points in the East Regional semifinal. The Tar Heels closed out the campaign beating Boston College by 20 points for third place in the region and an overall 23-8 record.
Those last two games were played in Providence, R.I. They brought Dean Smith to New England for the second time in the season. He had also been in New England the previous December when he gave his Tar Heels a tune-up game, and paid a visit to his good friend and coach at Yale, Joe Vancissin.